An Otherwise Blameless Life

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In back-to-back court appearances, Paul Manafort, Jr, former Trump campaign chairman, was sentenced to seven and a half years in federal prison. Judge T.S. Ellis’ was the sentencing judge in the Eastern District of Virginia on March 7, 2019. Less than a week later, District Judge Amy Berman Jackson presided in a separate sentencing of Manafort in the District of Columbia. The two judges seemed to approach a similar task in somewhat different ways. Judge Ellis’ excessively lenient sentence of 47 months highlights the privilege enjoyed by rich white men in America. Never mind how Manafort became rich. Judge Jackson’s sentence of 43 months seemed to represent greater balance. But make no mistake, the Manafort sentences illustrates the lack of true balance in the criminal justice.

Judge Ellis was emphatic that Manafort was “. . . not before the court for any allegation that he or anybody at his direction colluded with the Russian government to influence the 2016 presidential election.” That statement seemed to be a continuation of Ellis’ well-documented opposition to the special counsel’s investigaiton. It went a long way in illustrating the common belief that Manafort was a pawn in the investigation related to the Russian influence in the 2016 elections. But the facts are clear – for many years Manafort was a cheat. His fate should have been evident even to the novice – Manafort was indicted and convicted on charges stemming from hiding $55 million in offshore accounts, failing to pay $6 million in taxes, and defrauding banks.

In Virginia the sentencing guidelines recommended a prison sentence for Manafort ranging from 19 – 24 years. Sentencing guidelines also recommended fines ranging from $50,000 to $24 million. Judge Ellis said he found the recommendations excessive. Judge Ellis apparently has mixed feelings about the premise that prison sentences are a deterent to crime. He levied the minimum recommended fine and ordered restitution ranging from $6 million to nearly $25 million. Judge Ellis was clear about the advisory nature of the recommendations. That left sentencing solely at the judge’s discretion.


“. . . he has no criminal history. He is a graduate of a university and law school here, Georgetown for both, and he’s lived an otherwise blameless life. And he’s also earned the admiration of a number of people, all of whom have written the Court about him.”

Judge T. S. Ellis, Eastern District of Virginia

Any departure or variance from the sentencing guidlines takes various factors into account. But not much of that matters. The final decision on sentencing and fines is at the sentencing judge’s discretion. The premise that we should have similar prison sentences for similar offenses and offenders is fair and just. Is that what happens in real life? A comparison of two of Ellis’ white collar crime sentences – Manafort (less than 4 years) and former U. S. Representative William Jefferson (13 years) – implies that the premise doesn’t hold water.

Manafort’s sentencing in federal district court in Washington, D. C. was a slightly different story. Judge Amy Jackson made clear that her role was not to attempt to correct what was seen as a lenient sentence in the Eastern District of Virginia. Jackson lambasted Manafort for backing away from the facts even after he pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy and obstruction charges in her court. Jackson also said that Manafort was not a victim as his defense team continues to allude.

Instead, Jackson framed the mantra championed by the Manafort defense team – that Manafort would not have been a subject of investigation but for his proximity to the president’s 2016 election campaign – for what it is, “just one more thing that’s inconsistent with the notion of any genuine acceptance of responsibility.” She was also very pointed in her statement that the special counsel investigation is not complete and the crimes for which Manafort was being sentence related to his lying and cheating, not collusion. Judge Jackson saw Manafort as a leader of the conspiracy to which he entered a guilty plea. Sentencing guidelines called for as much as 10 years incarceration. On balance, Jackson sent a resounding message with a 43-month sentence. Judge Jackson also ordered Manafort to pay $24.8 million in restitution and a $50,000 fine.


“There was no question this defendant knew better and he knew exactly what he was doing,” 

U. S. District Judge Amy Jackson, District of Columbia

Kevin Downing, Manafort’s defense attorney apparently still didn’t get the message. After the sentencing hearing, Downing stood on the steps of the courthouse and said that “Judge Jackson conceded that there was absolutely no evidence of any Russian collusion in this case. So that makes two courts. Two courts have ruled no evidence of any collusion with any Russians.”

How we judge and sentence offenders differ with the type of crime . . . and the financial means of the offender. Manafort’s convictions are for what’s commonly called “white collar crimes”. White collar crimes are often committed by people with a money. The legal system views white collar crimes different from other crimes. Likewise, white collar criminals are viewed differently – to the point that their crimes are not punished by Congressionally-mandated sentences. As a result, Ellis’ extreme departure from the sentencing guidelines in the Manafort case comes as no surprise.

What does this all mean? One realization is that the poor suffer disproportionately at the hands of the American criminal justice system. Before we even get to a sentencing phase there are so many places life can take a terrible turn for the worse. Poor communities and communities of color (very often the same place) are, on the front end, over-policed. Then there’s racial profiling. Of course, once the officer uses his discretion to arrest rather than warn, the lack of money for bail is the next hurdle. No money for bail or a team of lawyers means a guilty plea – just to get out of jail and back to work.

But, make no mistake, Manafort still has at least $4 million in assets and properties. He has two homes, one in Alexandria, Virginia and another in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, despite the fact that the government seized other homes he owned. His incarceration will not leave his family destitute.  In stark contrast, poor Americans or Americans of color often fall to the bottom rung of the ladder simply because they can’t afford bail on true trumped up charges.

Maybe one day we will have a “tough on crime” administration that will execute a War on White Collar Crime with the same zeal that we saw in the war waged against young black men during the War on Drugs. Don’t you think it’s time?

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